Rubber match: MAU, Essex destined to meet
No. 1 Essex and No. 2 Mount Anthony have been on two separate paths — one from the North and one from the South — but the collision course finally forked together Saturday at Castleton University for the Division I softball state championship game.
A game three years in the making, it was time to show who the power program of Vermont high school softball truly is.
It's a story that began two years ago with the Hornets edging the Patriots in the championship and continued last year with MAU's walk-off title win. It all came to a crescendo Saturday.
With both teams coming in with potent offenses, it was about getting the key hits in the key moments in the title game. Essex was just a little bit better in that regard Saturday and it resulted in a 3-2 win that gave them their second state championship in three years.
No matter the result of their game championship contest, this softball matchup is one built upon respect — two teams at the top of their game battling in healthy competition for the state's bragging rights.
For teams that are separated by almost a three-hour drive, the rivalry built between them is on par with the best in the state.
"It's a friendly rivalry," said MAU coach Katie Contrada. "We know they're up there in the north doing their thing and we're in the south doing our thing. We expect that somewhere down the road, we're going to meet them in the tournament."
"You can go player-for-player in terms of stats and in terms of style of play, it's eerily similar," added Hornets coach Ashley Stebbins. "We play them 100 times, 50 go our way, 50 go their way. That's what seems to be happening in the state final game now."
After last year's extra-inning walk-off by the Patriots' Marleigh Greene to secure the title for MAU, Essex had a phrase they have gone back to constantly throughout its perfect 20-0 run this season: "we learn."
"We learned from last year here and our day-to-day practices and games," Stebbins said. "We've been preaching to them that no matter what happens, we learn. We came into this game very relaxed, very confident, much more so than last year. They put out there that they had taken on that motto."
Throughout the season, the question of who is the superior team has been on people's minds. One from the northern half of the state and the other from the south, the two teams the teams couldn't be more different, yet the same. When it comes down to it, there isn't much that separates MAU and Essex. They are, in a sense, mirror images of each other.
Both have dominant pitching.
Taylor Dicranian has been one of the state's best hurlers since taking over on a full-time basis during her sophomore season. Dicranian is the catalyst on the mound for a Patriots team that over their 19 total games heading into Saturday allowed an average of one run per game. Her counterpart, Hornets junior Caitlin Toth, has been strong in her own right, throwing six shutouts this year and a quality outing in Essex's walk-off 5-4 win against Colchester in the state semifinals.
On top of this pitching, both teams have the ability to put a team out of a game in just minutes with their bats.
Coming into Saturday's contest, MAU averaged almost 14.9 runs per game, while the Hornets averaged 14.6 runs per game. The least amount of runs Essex scored in a game before Saturday was five, which it did twice.
They only got three against Mount Anthony, but it was just enough.
"We knew it was going to be a dog fight coming into it and that's exactly what it was," Contrada said. "I was proud of the girls on the way they played."
"It makes it an even a better game," added senior catcher Jamie Boyle, about how the similarities made for a close contest. "We lost, but it was a good game for us."
The Patriots finish yet another stellar season with an 18-2 mark. They stand to lose Boyle, pitcher Taylor Dicranian, first baseman Kaity O'Brien, center fielder Kaidin Gauthier and outfielder/third baseman Ashlee Billert, along with manager Maddisyn Kinney to graduation.
Boyle will suit up on the same field she played on Saturday, as she is set to play her college softball at Castleton. Dicranian will play at Sage College in Troy, N.Y. next spring.
The undefeated Hornets graduate six seniors, including outfielder Makenna Thorne, who had the big blow Saturday with a fifth-inning homerun. Thorne and her teammate, shortstop Emily Harvey, will join Boyle, as both are set to play for the Spartans next season as well.
Adam Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed at @AAucoin_Banner on Twitter.
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